Viewing the world through innocence, a youth hears a prophetic message to be remembered as an elder man. This is a short story I wrote years ago, based on a true event. The characters have changed today, but the story continues.
The Student and Ambassador Stevenson by Wilson Wyatt Jr.
The United Nations building stands as a gated oasis on the edge of New York’s East Side. It is a tall, timeless shining light with its glass exterior reflecting the busy life of people and ports below, a mix of languages and humanity. Inside, on one of the top floors, is the U.S. Ambassador’s suite of offices. There is a large reception area suitable for dignitaries and representatives of state from around the world. Secretaries and assistants are clapping and shouting praise as they gather around a small, oval black and white television screen, encased in a large polished wooden credenza.
“That’s it, Adlai! Hold their feet to the fire!” one cries out. The large room echos with jubilant cheering, like fans in Yankee Stadium. The television screen shows an animated U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson displaying aerial photographs of missiles and warheads lining a construction site in Cuba. The Ambassador leans into the microphone, his eyes fixed on the Russian Ambassador, who is looking away.
“Do you deny these are your Russian missiles, your atomic warheads, being assembled in Cuba, as I speak?” Ambassador Stevenson’s voice is clear and distinctive.
There is no answer. The Russian folds his arms and looks into space.
Adlai slams down both his fists on the table in front of him with an audible thud and says, “I await your answer, sir. I will wait here until Hell freezes over.”
Cheers ring through the reception room.
“He did it,” one dignitary shouts out. “President Kennedy will be elated. He’s forcing the Russians’ hand, in front of the world.”
A tall, lanky student dressed in a navy high school blazer, tie, and gray slacks sits awkwardly on a couch across the room from the television assembly. He tries to forge a knowledgeable appearance, fidgeting with his tie. He thumbs through a current issue of LOOK magazine, waiting for his appointment with Ambassador Stevenson. He won a national high school essay contest, and his reward was a meeting with the Ambassador at the United Nations. He turns a page of the magazine and looks at his watch. An hour has passed. He doesn’t understand, perhaps the secretary hasn’t told the Ambassador he’s there. He waits.
Amid the cheering, the professionally attired receptionist catches sight of the boy out of the corner of her eye. She knows he couldn’t understand. There is another round of loud cheers. She rises from her desk with a hint of a smile on her face and walks over to the boy.
“Mr. Young, can I get you something, perhaps a Coke-a-Cola,” she asks. “Ambassador will return soon. These days are most unusual. I’m sure he’ll tell you about it.”
The boy feels gratified. He accepts her offer of a Coke. Moments pass slowly. There is gravity in the air, importance he has never felt before. He finishes LOOK and selects LIFE. An ominous picture of an ICBM taking off with a fiery fury against a darkened sky fills the cover.
There were regular bomb drills at his school in Connecticut. The alarm bell would sound, echoing through the brick halls, piercing all other sounds. The students became practiced at quickly jumping down from their chairs, sliding on the floor under their desks. They would look away from the windows and cover their eyes tightly with their hands, preventing the anticipated flash of light of an atomic blast from scorching their eyes. Their desks would be protection against broken glass from shattered windows by the first shock wave of an explosion miles away.
At first the bomb drills seemed phony in a student’s world, so far away from shores of war. At school, there was more fear of zip guns, chains, lead pipes, and stilettos, the weapons of gangs. Later the phoniness turned into comic relief, a forced intervention from the teacher’s lessons, a time to play games under desks.
As time passed, the drills took on more meaning. Nighttime television broadcasts showed films of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and atomic blasts in the Nevada desert. President Kennedy addressed the nation from the Oval Office with news of a standoff with Russia over atomic warheads. When the drill bells rang, a shiver of fear would eat away at play.
The United Nations office of Ambassador Stevenson seems distant to the young student’s world. The boy sits uncomfortably on the couch as the professionals watch the Ambassador perform. One of the secretaries turns off the television. The room empties as they walk back through a door down a long corridor to their offices. For a moment the large reception room contains only the boy and the receptionist. There is silence, except for the receptionist’s typewriter methodically keying letters on a page.
The silence is broken. The two large glass entrance doors open, and a huddled group of men and women pass quickly through the room. One is shorter than the others, in the middle. He is Ambassador Stevenson, in a dark gray suit, his thin brown hair slightly disheveled around his oval balding head. He is busy talking to the others in the pack as they parade through the room and disappear down the long corridor.
The secretary rises from her chair and follows after the Ambassador with her notepad, leaving the boy alone in the room. He feels small, insignificant, and he thinks about leaving, sneaking out through the double doors. Now that his time with the Ambassador is approaching, reality sets in and words escape him.
“Mr. Young,” a voice breaks the silence. A slightly built, distinguished looking man with black hair and a mustache wearing a tailored dark suit walks up to the boy and extends his hand. “I am Mr. Adams, Ambassador’s assistant. Ambassador will see you now.”
The boy jumps up from the couch, fidgeting with his tie. Mr. Adams sees the boy is flush and uncomfortable.
“Ambassador has been looking forward to meeting you,” he says with a warm smile. “He was once a student as well, you know.”
The thought is comforting. Mr. Adams leads the boy through the door, down to the far end of the corridor to an open door. The entrance is larger than the other doorways. A three-dimensional red, white, blue, and gold seal is fixed to the wall reading “United States of America.”
“Ambassador, I introduce you to the fine young man who won the national essay contest, Mr. David Young,” he says.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson is facing the expansive water view from his office window. He turns with a warm smile, his eyes sparkling with energy.
“David, I’m so glad you could come. Please come in,” Ambassador Stevenson says. He offers the boy a chair, asks about his school. Then he takes off his jacket, flings it onto another chair with a casual gesture, and loosens his tie. The boy feels more comfortable.
“I have to tell you, David, I’ve had a difficult day. We live in dangerous times,” says the Ambassador.
The boy fumbles for words and asks what happened during the day. Ambassador Stevenson gives him a brief version of the Cuban missile crisis. The boy seems to understand although his knowledge feels insufficient in the presence of the Ambassador, the way he speaks, his velvet voice, and his choice of words.
Ambassador Stevenson sits back in his chair, in a relaxed posture.
“David, as you grew up, who was your favorite king?” asks the Ambassador. The boy considered the question nervously.
“King Arthur, I suppose, in literature,” the boy says.
“Fine choice, young man,” says the Ambassador. “He was a good king, one of principle and courage. There are other kings living today, but the principles of your king will far outlive all the other kings combined.”
The boy feels elevated by the recognition of his king. The Ambassador fixes his eyes directly on the boy’s eyes. The sparkling energy disappears, displaced by a dark look of concern.
“We should not focus our fear of atomic weapons in the hands of the Russians,” the Ambassador says. “My greatest fear is atomic weapons in the hands of these other kings, dictators, and the tribal chieftains in the Middle East. It is not a matter of if they will acquire atomic weapons but when. They will buy them with oil. They will use them. That is my greatest worry for the future of the civilized world.”
“Mr. Ambassador, can I quote you for our school paper?” the boy asks.
“Yes, I wish you would,” says Ambassador Stevenson. “But you should leave out the parts about the Russians, dictators, and tribal chieftains.”
Ambassador Stevenson laughs. “Of course,” he says, “that doesn’t leave you much to write about.”
Mr. Adams enters the office and announces the next appointment.
“Remember what I said, young man,” the Ambassador says. “It is the greatest challenge of your generation.”
Ambassador Stevenson and the boy shake hands. Mr. Adams escorts him out of the office, down the long corridor, into the large reception room. There are other men sitting huddled in one corner, speaking intensely to each other. One looks at his watch.
“May I offer you another Coke-a-Cola before you leave,” Mr. Adams asks the boy.
The boy looks at him, shaking his head no, and thanks him. He puts his hands in his pockets, lowers his head, and walks slowly out of the large double glass doors.